Basic Historical Issues in Feminism: An Introduction to The Second Sex
[The following text, prepared by Ian Johnston, is intended as an introduction to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. It was the basis for a lecture delivered, in part, in Liberal Studies 402 at Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University), on Tuesday, March 14, 1997. This text is in the public domain, released May 1999]
For comments and questions, contact Ian Johnston
This week we are directing our attention to selections from one of the most important texts in the social movement and ideology we refer to as feminism, having explored last week the notion of different cultural traditions and cultural relativism as presented by Ruth Benedict. We will be going on next week to consider the most dramatic and horrible consequences of cultural warfare, the attempted genocide of the Nazi regime in the 1930’s and 1940’s, in a famous essay by Hannah Arendt.
While these subjects are, in many respects, very distinct, I want to today initially to attempt to link them together in order to offer some general background to and reflections upon an important social-political question which arises directly from the reading we have been doing in Liberal Studies, namely, the various ways in modern life we have attempted to analyze and to deal with those whom we recognize as, in some important ways, oppressed. Having done that, then I would like to direct some specific attention to the term feminism, in order to offer a very general map, so that we can better orient ourselves in the face of often confusing terrain and have something to refer to in our discussions of de Beauvoir’s text.
Thus, while I am not going to be addressing feminism directly in the first part of this lecture, most of what I have to say will, I hope, emerge as directly related to central feminist concerns and to de Beauvoir’s argument in particular. So my purpose here today is to see if I can bring together a number of concerns we have been looking at (or will be considering), in order to draw our attention to some complex questions connected with de Beauvoir’s and Arendt’s texts and with important modern social issues in Canada, not the least of which are the issues of the feminist movement in Canada, the separatist movement in Quebec, and the modern push to self-government among First Nations peoples in British Columbia.
This sounds like a tall order, and it is, but I hope I can offer some clarification in relation to the reading we have done and will be doing, without being too oversimple in analyzing complex issues.
The Enlightenment Reform Program Once More
We have repeated talked about how we can view the Enlightenment, that intellectual movement in Europe which we first encountered in our reading of Hobbes, as a rational reformist movement, which aimed at restructuring all elements of society to create a more just and more stable basis for communal living in the face of the apparent break down of traditional order, more specifically, in the collapse of the shared religious beliefs as the basis of that order.
Further, we have, in reading Hobbes, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Mill, Kant, and Marx seen repeatedly how the Enlightenment reform program centred on a number of key concepts, of which the most important are equality, duty, freedom, individual rights (which exist prior to society), democracy, self-definition, and government by consent. Although these writers are very distinct, in various ways they keep coming back to these concepts and attempting to explore the central issue: How can we, in a modern state, create a fair, meaningful, and stable life for each citizen, bearing in mind these fundamental rational principles which we oppose to any slavish devotion to traditions which have for too long institutionalized unnatural dominance of one human being over another.
The first step is clear enough: we have to transform the traditional structure of European society, the order based upon rank, inherited wealth, conservative static institutions (like the monarchy, the aristocracy, the church establishment, and the family), and inegalitarian application of the law. Some thinkers, as we have seen, approach this task with some reluctance, others will ruthless rational clarity (like Hobbes), others with apocalyptic revolutionary zeal (like Marx and Rousseau), and others with a cautious optimism (like Kant and Wollstonecraft). But they are united in the sense that establishing the proper society and the good life for human beings means, first and foremost, moving beyond traditional structures and beliefs, under the guidance of reason, science, and, in some cases, a sense of historical inevitability.
Out of this reform program we have followed at least four different general responses. At the risk of sounding oversimple, I’d like briefly to consider these and then move on to look at some of the difficulties the differences between these create for all reform programs, whether these are focusing on feminist issues, aboriginal issues, civil rights, or other social concerns for the oppressed.
The Liberal Tradition
The first, and in our culture most important, reform tradition from the Enlightenment we can call, loosely, Liberalism. In this tradition, arising out of the Enlightenment (starting with Hobbes) the central concern is with equality under an artificial sovereign authority, whose power derives from the consent of the governed and an equal treatment of all citizens, who are all equally obliged under the law. The state’s purpose is to guarantee individual and public security, while attending to the rights of individuals, to legislate in such a way as to maintain an equal playing field and to promote, through the appropriate balance of private liberty and public control (about which there are continuing arguments) a situation where the individual and the community can thrive to the mutual benefit of both.
As we saw in Hobbes, Wollstonecraft, Kant, and Mill, a central concern of this liberal tradition is the best balance of individual liberty, freedom of association, and government power in a state where equality of all citizens is a first concern, equality in the sense that no special provisions are to be made for special interests in the state (which breed faction and interfere with commodious living and which compromise the central concept of a single virtue as the essence of human life). The goal of the liberal state must be the full individual development of the autonomous, free individual in charge of his or her own life, in a state which does not erect oppressive unnecessary barriers to anyone and in which each individual recognizes the rights, obligations, and freedoms of others as equal to his or her own rights, obligations, and freedoms.
Thus, a central political concern of the Liberal tradition in dealing with the oppressed, whether these are the poor, the women, the natives, or the blacks is equal access. The best way to mitigate social injustice to such groups is through adjustments to the law, to existing institutions, and through education. Such adjustments are best fostered through the intelligent study of people, through open forums for argument (under the principle of freedom of expression), and through a continuing critical awareness of what is and is not permitted in our society and why (points which, in different ways, James, Freud, and Benedict all emphasize).
The liberal tradition has tended for obvious reasons to emphasize democracy, equality under the law, and equality of opportunity in education and the job market, and the major political movements of liberal reformers, whether feminists, gay rights advocates, or civil rights workers has been to extend through changes in the law and in popular attitudes access to the full benefits of liberal democracy to all citizens.
In general, in spite of often very violent protest phases, the liberal tradition has tended to be a reform movement, rather than a revolutionary ideology (at least in western culture), because its advocates have had (and still have) faith in the existing liberal institutions and traditions (especially the legislatures, the law courts, the free press, and the educational systems) to adjust themselves to provide a more fair and less oppressive society for all citizens. As we see clearly in Benedict and Freud, their views about revolutionary utopian schemes are not encouraging.
Just how far the law should go in promoting such justice has always been and still is a central debate among liberal thinkers (for example in arguments about affirmative action, pay equity, and political correctness). However, the major details of the program, as outlined very generally above, represent a shared social program of reform through legitimate social action, in general without immediate and drastic revolutionary implications to the existing structures.
This tradition has not been without its strong critics who focus on a number of different things by way of pointing out the limitations of the liberal agenda as an avenue to dealing with oppression. For instance, Marxists argue that the failure of liberalism to address the question of private property simply delivers the so-called “free” citizens even more into the insatiable appetite of bourgeois capitalism; others have argued that the atomistic individualistic emphasis of the liberal tradition has further alienated people, who are, as Aristotle insists, primarily social beings, rather than self-interested individuals. Both of these schools of critics are not slow to point out that the fine “ideology” put forward by the liberals nicely serves the agenda of capitalist business.
Nevertheless, for all the energetic criticism of the liberal tradition, it retains its hold on the western imagination and is still the mainstream political movement in almost all Western countries (no matter how it is dressed up with party labels).
The Communal Tradition
We also read about a significantly different notion of achieving the best society when we studied Rousseau. Here there is a much stronger emphasis on the communitarian basis for the full achievement of the integrated life. For in Rousseau’s vision of the state, what motivates citizens is not, as in, say, Hobbes, an enlightened self-interest to follow certain public rules in order to achieve private freedoms and commodious living, but rather a powerfully different idea: that my full self-identity, my sense of myself as an independent and well integrated rational being, is bound inextricably up with group self-determination, the ability of the individual to seek an identity in a society ruled by the General Will.
Rousseau, as we discussed, placed all sorts of caveats on this vision of the modern state, unequivocally endorsed republican democracy as the only legitimate government, and was in places very gloomy about the possibilities for its proper realization in the large industrializing nation. But he is rightly seen as a very powerful voice presenting the modern idea that my freedom as an individual is closely bound up with my sense of belonging to a racially or ethnically or economically or culturally homogeneous community and that, if I am denied that membership, then I am in some important way being oppressed, no matter how well economically or democratically I may be treated or how officially free I may be as an individual.
Now, there is obviously a significant and lasting difference here between the orthodox liberal tradition as I have briefly described it and this communal-national tradition. And this difference is the source of a number of political and social problems in any reform or revolutionary movement which seeks to aid the oppressed. For it’s clear that if membership in a meaningful and relatively homogenous community is essential to my sense of my individuality, then there are places where that is clearly at odds with the notion that all citizens must, as a first priority, be treated equally.
This problem arises, in particular, in the modern state where there are clear ethnic divisions between the citizens. In countries like Great Britain or the United States, for example, where the liberal tradition has been very strong and where its development has been accompanied by considerable economic success, the communal-national thrust of Enlightenment thinking has in general been successfully dealt with. There are occasionally rumours about Scottish or Welsh nationalism or Back to Africa movements, but in general these are politically irrelevant (with the important exception, for Canadians, of Quebec and First Nations separatist or self-government movements). In other countries, however, where the minority ethnic rivalries are much stronger and the economy much weaker, the communitarian tradition has been and continues to be a major political difficulty.
How do we reconcile the demands of all the various Eastern European minorities with the desire for a secure modern state? If equality under a single authority and ethnic identity are important, how do we create and sustain such a state without having to sacrifice one principle to the other? We can see the dilemma this causes in the recurring difficulties western democratic liberals have in dealing with national liberation movements. On the one hand we decry these as leading to the greatest of all evils, civil war, but on the other hand, we often see in them the legitimate aspirations of an oppressed minority which must have full power to express its collective identity if the individuals in that society are to be fully free.
Furthermore, although the liberal will usually detest international war, he or she is often the first to call upon liberal democracies to intervene militarily to protect the ethnic rights of an oppressed minority (a major paradox in the liberal attitude to war in the last century). For the communitarian tradition powerfully suggests that a strong and freely chosen group identity is a potent factor in human emancipation, almost a fundamental right (and we have the authority of, among other things, the Book of Exodus to remind us of that point)..
If we were contemporary western liberals looking at the most famous film tribute to Hitler’s transformation of German politics, Triumph of the Will, in 1934, for example, we might justly be alarmed about what we perceived as something approaching irrational mass politics, but we would have difficulty there because at the same time the film is very powerfully insisting upon (and was designed to insist upon) the way in which the National Socialists, and Hitler in particular, were a legitimate expression of the people’s will and that, therefore, it would be unjust not to accept them as the legitimate expression of the freedom of the German people (it was this sort of thinking that persuaded the German authorities to permit Hitler to attain political power in Germany through the electoral process, when, in fact, he might have been legally prevented from doing so, since he was not born in Germany).
One way we have tried to deal with the difficulty is to create new countries on ethnic or religious lines, even when that involves massive relocation (say by splitting India and Pakistan or dividing up the Austro-Hungarian Empire into many independent states or, more recently, carving up Yugoslavia) or, as Arendt discusses, by designating official minorities within larger alien cultures. But none of these measures, it is clear, is always sufficient to provide the ethnic and racial homogeneity which might prevent further liberation movements leading to blood baths within the newly created states, like those in Eastern Europe, in the Balkans, Rwanda, Uganda, Indonesia, or Somalia.
And we have had recurring difficulties in dealing with situations where the people’s will seems to project some charismatic leader who offends our sense of democratic individual liberty (by immediately stifling freedom of speech, for example) and who, at the same time, seems to incorporate the legitimate desires of a particular people. So when we are confronted by what is going on in the Balkans or in Somalia or in Chechnya, we are not sure what to do. In such cases our liberal traditions seem to be at odds with our communal traditions. We are caught between the conflicting demands of two famous exhortations: “A house divided against itself cannot stand” and “Let my people go.”
In the United States, for example, we face the rising anti-Semitism among the Black community, fostered by the Nation of Islam, one of the most popular expressions of the oppressed black community’s identity in North America, including Canada. And, even closer to home, our attitudes to our own problems with the First Nations have been characterized by a certain indecision as to whether the most just thing to do is to force them into mainstream liberal society, with all the necessary laws and financial incentives to encourage access to the modern Canadian democracy (the Trudeau policy, of which Hobbes would no doubt thoroughly have approved), or to allow them to create separate identities through self-government, even when the principles of the self-government are going to offend our egalitarian democratic principles. How do we sort out the communitarian claims of the First Nations with the protests of, say, First Nation women that the self-government is going to institutionalize the oppression of women in a manner directly contrary to the liberal desire for equality between men and women, for example?
This, of course, is part of the much larger and very urgent question about how we are to respect the cultural priorities of others when, by our liberal ideology, we see them as inherently oppressive? How we reconcile individual rights and equality with what we see as legitimate claims for group self-expression remains an issue handed down to us by these conflicting Enlightenment traditions of dealing with oppression. And in no area of inquiry is this a more urgent problem than in the treatment of women throughout the world.
The Communist Response
One way to reconcile the apparently conflicting demands of liberalism and communal nationalism was offered by Karl Marx. For him, liberalism was not the answer, depending as it does on the central idea of private property, the source of personal and group oppression, and on the preservation of the bourgeois family, a centrally oppressive organization of production; nor was communal revolution in the service of an ethnic identity any better, since that is incompatible with the nature of the modern industrial state.
For Marx, true emancipation begins with a recognition of one’s class identity, an awareness which arises from a rational understanding of the nature of work and of its effects in shaping human consciousness and culture. Since the conditions of modern work transcend all ethnic and national divisions and since the development of labour is driven by the forces of history, the truly just modern state must arise (and will arise) out of an international awareness of the common class interests of the proletariat (no matter what their ethnic origins or gender). Once this is achieved, revolution against the oppressive traditions of liberal bourgeois capitalism will usher in a new age in which individual and communal and gender interests will be reconciled.
The importance of this analysis rests, in part, on the priority it gives to the material conditions of life as the starting point, especially the conditions of work, and on the way in which it insists that all other questions must give way before this one. Only through an acceptance of the class basis for social conflict and a commitment to working in the class struggle can the Enlightenment project’s highest hopes be realized, including any hopes for relief of the oppressed. And for this, the essential concern is the nature of work and the ownership of the means of production. A preoccupation with preserving individual liberty (especially those of property) or traditional ethnic identity is an important obstacle that must be overcome, through education and, if necessary, by force.
Marx’s analysis, as we have discussed, has been an enormously powerful post-Enlightenment revolutionary force. But it, too, raises serious questions about the extent to which the development of an international class consciousness is going to be an effective agent for change, effective enough to promote proletarian solidarity in the face the twin demands of individual liberty and ethnic communal identity or a revival of a traditionally oppressive religious fundamentalism. And nowhere is the central clash of these questions more prominent than in the women’s movement. Indeed, as I hope to discuss in a moment, there is serious disagreement among feminists as to whether women’s issues are susceptible to accurate analysis on Marxist lines.
And, of course, other oppressed groups have in places proved very resistant to the orthodox Marxist model for revolution, nowhere more so than among the Afro-Americans whose chief demand has always been, not revolution, but reforms to promote greater access to the liberal society, or the poor of the Third World who often opt for religious fundamental revivals rather than for economic revolution based upon class. Whether this indicates that the historical time frame of the Communist agenda needs to be extended or whether we see in such phenomena and in the collapse of the Soviet Union evidence for some fundamental flaws in the revolutionary plan is open to argument.
The Romantic Alternative
The Enlightenment programs for rational reform of the tradition, either by revolution or by less violent means, generated, as we have seen, a counter-response which turned away from social action altogether and set up as a priority a personal revolution, a radical redefinition which had no necessary connection with others.
In looking at the Romantic poets and Nietzsche and Freud we have discussed this notion that the only significant action which can liberate us from inherited oppression is through our own imagination, through a reconstitution of the self in a new self-description which has nothing in particular to do with anyone else’s political or social agenda. And we have followed some of the consequences of this view of modernity in the art, music, poetry, and fiction of this century. We will, in a few weeks, be returning to this issue in the final two authors we study, Charles Taylor and George Grant.
This radically personal response to the most serious questions of oppression, alienation, and injustice can obviously subvert any program which seeks some form of collective action, whether that is a program of liberal reform, national liberation, or the class struggle. And in those places, like Western Canada, where this idea of emancipation through personal adjustment or redefinition has gained special prominence, the notion of collective action is often resisted in the name of my personal liberty to do as I want with my own life, to self-create rather than to subordinate that responsibility to any larger socio-political cause. Hence, there is often a resistance to channeling any feelings I have about being oppressed into direct political action. The best road to take is something much more personal.
And Now To Feminism
I have taken the time to review quickly and cursorily these different inheritances from the Enlightenment because, to a greater or lesser extent, the common desire most of us have to minimize oppression is shaped by them, and the difficulties we face in securing agreement about what the problem is and what we should do about it, as often as not, arise from the conflicting assumptions and programs of these different ideologies.
In Canada, for example, we have shifted from an orthodox liberal treatment of the First Nations and Quebec issues (which characterized the Trudeau years) to a much more communitarian emphasis on self-determination, self-government, to an extent that would have Hobbes spinning in his grave and which has Trudeau fuming in his Montreal Art Deco house. In the United States we see something of the same thing happening, as many Afro-Americans lament the Civil Rights movement as a failure and express the belief that the Blacks would be much better off if they had concentrated far less on access and more on a separate self-determined identity. In the Soviet Union, the enforced rational construct of a modern industrial state is falling apart into ethnic units, each one demanding its right to fully autonomous self-determination. And we are not sure whom to back: the remaining forces for some form of overall democratic sovereign power or the feisty ethnic minorities fighting for their own identity.
All of this leads directly to certain issues central to our concern this week--how to deal with the oppression of women in modern society. If we (for the purposes of this lecture) define feminism very loosely as the social movement and accompanying ideology (or ideologies) which seek relief from traditional oppression for women, because we recognize too clearly that they are not in a situation equal to men, and if we see, as I shall point out in a moment, that the rise of modern feminism is very closely linked to the Enlightenment project, then we might expect to see that under that monolithic sounding label (feminism or the Women’s Movement) exist a number of different ideological components, not all of which always blend harmoniously with one another.
I think it’s important to make some attempt to distinguish these components, because while we no doubt all think we are familiar with the term “feminism” we may not all bring to the table the same sense of what that elusive label means by way of a specific belief. And thus, to avoid spending a lot of time arguing at cross purposes, I would like in the remainder of this lecture to link the various Enlightenment reform projects with the all-inclusive label “feminism,” so that we can get some sort of map for our discussions.
The modern feminist movement is closely associated with the Enlightenment for two main reasons. In the first place, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed economic changes which radically altered women’s situation, especially in the middle class, creating urgent new problems and, second, the attack on the tradition fostered by the Enlightenment invited a polemical review of the long-standing second-class status given to women in almost all aspects of traditional society.
The profound changes we have already considered in the establishment of Protestantism, capitalism, and democracy in the seventeenth century were particularly drastic at first for many middle-class women, largely because it left them with no clear role in society, other than to become the commodities nurtured and paraded by their parents and taken over by their husbands (with one important job, to produce, as the saying goes, “an heir and a spare”). In this respect, the first urgent issue of modern feminism was the middle class, where a growing number of literate, moderately wealthy, and often very intelligent women were denied any life other than the one predetermined for them by men.
In some respects, the situation for middle-class women, like Mary Wollstonecraft, presented something new: a class of citizens with nothing to do but to be traded back and forth between men. Women may have for centuries been considered distinctly second-class or third-class citizens, with appropriate justifications offered by interpretations of scripture and Aristotelian science, but before this period many of them had vital economic roles to play and thus, for all their legal and social inferiority, had important and recognized value.
So long as the main centre for most people’s lives was the family farm or the small cottage industry, the importance of woman was clear and recognized. She had a place and an importance vital to the survival of not only herself but of her husband and children as well. De Beauvoir makes this point in her discussions of how the French Revolution did not live up to its promise for women:
In the country the peasant woman took a considerable part in farm labor; she was treated as a servant; frequently she did not eat at the table with her husband and sons; she slaved harder than they did, and the burdens of maternity added to her fatigue. But as in ancient agricultural societies, being necessary to man, she was respected by him; their goods, their interests, their cares were all in common; she exercised great authority in the home. (109)
Mary Wollstonecraft makes a similar point in her observations that among the poorer classes she sometimes sees a sturdier sense of self among women than in the middle classes who are her main concern.
In addition, of course, before the Reformation, the Catholic Church offered an important career option for women who did not wish to marry and yet wanted to contribute in important ways to society and to confer some value upon their own achievements. While attaining the influence and fame of someone like Hildegard was a very rare occurrence, it was possible.
The origins of modern feminism in the middle class created by the growth of reasonably affluent, literate, leisured, middle class urban families, then, can be understood, in part, as the result of a growing number of women, like Mary Wollstonecraft, who had no stake in traditional society and for whom modern society appeared to have no valued place, other than as a commodity whose value was to be determined by men. How was the daughter of such a family to achieve a life which in any way she could call her own? How was she to give her life some value?
The first great Enlightenment answer to that question laid the basis for what one can characterize as the mainstream feminist movement, Liberal or Individualist Feminism, the view that, since there is no essential difference in the moral constitution of men and women, the appropriate thing to do is to treat them equally. This is the central theme of the first great English work of modern feminist ideology, Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Her argument, you will recall, centres on the notion of virtue and rights. If there is one human virtue and one set of human rights, then it is illogical to treat women differently. And to do so is not only immoral but also socially foolish. What the great liberal writers, like Locke and Hobbes, had persuasively set out as the just way to organize a modern society must therefore apply to women as well as to men.
The consequence of this, for Wollstonecraft, is that law and education must be reformed to provide women with greater access to all the options available to men. Rousseau may be right in his stress upon the importance of democratic individualism in a collective, but he is immoral in drawing so firm a line between men and women. His scheme is simply an encouragement to the moral corruption of women and, beyond that, of society itself, since women make up half its members and have the responsibility for raising all of its members from the earliest age. Wollstonecraft skillfully exploits a logical problem in Rousseau’s treatment of the education of women: how can they do what is expected of them, particularly vis-à-vis protecting the family from the corruptions of society, if they are not educated properly (i.e., in moral, philosophical, and economic issues)?
You may recall from Wollstonecraft’s book the central importance in this tradition of the denial of any essential moral difference between men and women. Wollstonecraft does not tackle directly the thorny issue of biology (nor could she, given her audience and the state of biological knowledge); she seems to assume that there are important biological differences (woman, for instance, has a sacred duty to her children) but that these are less central than the moral and political issues concerning freedom, rights, and autonomy. The liberal tradition’s main thrust relies strongly on this point: that whatever biological differences one may describe, these are insufficient to overwhelm the essential similarities.
Thus, the liberal tradition launched by Wollstonecraft has tended to overlook any putative problems posed by woman’s sexual nature or erotic needs (as Wollstonecraft tends to do by denying that passionate love is possible in the long term and insisting that friendship is a much sounder basis for a lasting marriage) or to assume that, given the right freedoms and equality with men, problems which arise from the different biological natures of men and women will take care of themselves.
Wollstonecraft was no political organizer, but her ideas were taken up in the nineteenth and twentieth century as women began to get more politically active. Ironically, some of the most powerful forces in shaping women’s awareness of political action came through issues having nothing directly to do with mainstream feminism: agitation against slavery and later action in favour of temperance. In both of these causes, a strong force was given by Evangelical Christianity, which saw a vital role for women in the promotion of charitable causes leading to social and moral reform.
These evangelical women were by no means all liberals (for their view of themselves was characterized, as often as not, by a view that men and women were fundamentally different and, in some cases, that women were decidedly the moral superiors of men, with a duty to improve conditions which men would never deal with on their own), but their actions opened the eyes of many women to what could be done and what was necessary to carry out in order for women to organize successfully in the pursuit of any political agenda.
Since Wollstonecraft’s time, the central aim of Liberal feminism has been to carry out the agenda she outlines: greater access to the same education as men enjoy, more emphasis on physical fitness for women, a strong deemphasis on Rousseauian training in femininity (along with the tendency of the market to foster false images of femininity), an increasing sense of Women’s Rights, including most importantly the right to vote.
An early culmination of this movement was the Declaration of Sentiments formulated by the Women’s Rights Convention held at Seneca Falls in America in 1848, which took as its platform a slightly modified version of the most succinct and famous statement of Enlightenment liberal principles.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
For the liberal, individualist feminist the movement must concern itself with more freedom for women, a freedom from all social oppression equivalent to man’s freedom. And society must reform itself in order to achieve that freedom. This was the central message of nineteenth century liberal feminists like Margaret Fuller and John Stuart Mill, and in recent years this line of feminist thought moved centre stage in North America with the work of Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique, 1963).
In the liberal feminist tradition women must be free to create her own life plan (a central demand of de Beauvoir’s argument), with a maximum of access to what is necessary for such success, including reproductive technology, economic fairness in the market place, and whatever adjustments are needed to conventional ways of life: househusbands, day care, family planning, affirmative action, gender-free language policies, maternity leave, wage parity. If we could make these adjustments, then the equality and freedom women desire can be made compatible with a traditional family life in a society organized on liberal traditions. No radical revolution in society or attitudes is necessary. Look after access, education, and economic fairness, and the aims of feminism will be met. For many mainstream feminists, especially in the middle class, this is still the main agenda.
Before leaving this aspect of feminism, we should note that the achievements of liberal feminism have been very considerable. To a great extent many of the things Wollstonecraft dreamed about have been achieved: the vote, full access to education and the professions, a much greater equality before the law, and in some areas economic parity. There may still be a long way to go before there is full equality in all necessary areas, but the achievements of liberal feminism, which we may tend to take for granted, have transformed social relations in our society in the last hundred and fifty years.
At the same time, this tradition has always attracted criticism from other women on the ground that liberal feminism serves primarily the interests of the middle class, ignoring the problems of working-class women (for whom, say, a minimally acceptable standard of living and freedom from street violence are much higher priorities than access to postgraduate programs or gender- free language or, for that matter, the right to vote). And so historically there has tended from time to time to be a radical disagreement between, say, black or Native women’s groups and mainstream liberal feminism.
And socialist feminists, as one might expect, often see liberal feminists as more interested in protecting their property than in advancing the full emancipation of women from oppression, a liberation that can only effectively be dealt with (in their view) through a revolution in the economic order.
For many feminists the liberal agenda sketched above suffers from two serious defects which render it counter-productive. In the first place, by refusing to recognize the bourgeois family, with its obsession with property and money, as the source of oppression for women, it fails to deal with the main problem. And secondly, the emancipation of women from traditional roles and granting them increased access to the marketplace is no liberation if the work available to them is, as it has tended to be, simply pink-collar labour--low wages and insufferably alienating jobs in sweat shops or dehumanizing factories or offices or a succession of temporary one-year contracts in teaching institutions run by a tenured male faculty. To both of these objections de Beauvoir gives a strong voice.
There is not time here to review the different socialist attitudes to the woman issue, but, as you recall, Marx’s central insistence is that we must first address the problems of work. Only when that has been revolutionized, so that the proletariat class owns the means of production can any significant progress be made toward full emancipation of the citizens, male and female. Until the resolution of the class struggle, there is no point in diverting energy into a secondary question: the issue of women.
Marx’s colleague Engels subsumed the women question under his analysis of the family as a bourgeois method of production. The family for Engels was an essential part of advanced capitalism, and with the triumph of communism, the nuclear family will cease to have importance as an economic unit and will therefore dissolve. The emancipation of women from the oppression of the bourgeois family will then come about because love relationships, temporary or lasting, will be based on inclination, not on an unfair distribution of economic power. Relationships which become oppressive will be far less pernicious, because women will have the legal and economic freedom to leave them.
For Marxists, then, the key to the analysis and understanding of the woman question is to see it as part of the larger class struggle. Therefore, women should identify the struggle for their liberation with the struggle for the liberation of all the working class. One serves the cause of women by serving the cause of all working people. The possibility that biological differences between men and women might be a factor is, in Marxist analysis, irrelevant.
Now, this Marxist perspective offers us the really important insight, which is a central point in de Beauvoir’s analysis, that emancipation for women is no particular gain if all we are doing is liberating women from an oppressive family into an oppressive workplace, that reforms on the liberal model will not be enough because they will still leave the woman oppressed at home (since the bourgeois family is still intact) and will persecute her at work (setting her in competition with other members of the working class, especially men). In fact, the liberal agenda will further serve the interests of oppressive capitalism because it will deliver to the employers a large amount of additional cheap labour.
Liberating women through patch work reforms, without a fundamental transformation of the entire society, simply makes her more than ever a victim of bourgeois capitalism, challenging her to be either a supermom or isolating her to cope as best she can with dependent children, an ineffectual, absent, or abusive husband, insufficient money, and a callous society which says that she is free to choose another way of life if she finds the choices she has made unsatisfactory.
Another important contribution of Marxist theory is to emphasize just how much of a woman’s experience is determined by the fact that she is treated as a commodity for others to do something to; she exists as something to be marketed or manipulated for commercial purposes, as an object whose value is conferred on her by others, and who is thus forced to consider herself to a large extent as an object. She is thus, by virtue of the male bourgeois social forces around her, fundamentally alienated, turned into an object for others, and compelled to think of herself as such an object. Her consciousness has been colonized by the male-dominated marketplace.
According to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome, the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man. . . . A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you. By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. . . . To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. . . . she comes to consider the surveyor and surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another. One might simplify this by saying: men act; women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male; the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object--and most particularly an object of vision: a sight. (John Berger, Ways of Seeing, qtd MacKinnon in Keohane and others, 26)
Or, as MacKinnon curtly sums up the issue, “Man fucks woman; subject verb object.”
Marxist analysis suggests, as we know, that oppression like this breeds resistance, the development of a class consciousness, and finally action. It is one of the great limitations to Marxist analysis of the oppression of women that this does not seem to occur; the oppressions seems to produce rather “a grateful complicity in exchange for survival and self-loathing to the point of the extinction of the self, respect for which makes resistance conceivable” (MacKinnon 25), a view which suggests either that the oppressive objectification of women is spectacularly successful in a way that other forms of oppression have failed to achieve, or else that the analysis may be flawed.
Meanwhile, there has always been among some women, especially in recent years, a profound dissatisfaction with this idea that women’s issues must be subordinated to the class war, either in the theoretical understanding of the problems or in the programs of practical action. Sexism within the working class, which manifests itself in continual violence against women in the home, economic discrimination in the market place, and sexual harassment on the job and within the union movement itself suggests that the class analysis of the common interests of proletarians, male and female, is somehow inadequate. Committed socialist men are as much sexist pigs (i.e., sources of oppression) as other men.
It’s historically interesting that the Women’s Liberation Movement in Canada, according to Roberta Hamilton, dawned in 1967 when women in the Student Union for Peace Action decisively broke with Marxist-socialist principles, precisely on this point of sexist attitudes among the men of the Left:
Believing as Marx did that social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex . . . we will trace the history of the role of women in the New Left in Canada and show that this role is determined by the values of the dominant society . . . [we conclude that] . . . until the male chauvinists of the movement understand the concept of liberation in relation to women, the most exploited member of any society, they will be voicing political lies. (qu 77)
And this has prompted widespread criticism of the Marxist analysis of the “woman question” by women who refuse to see that the class struggle takes precedence. For some of them, the Marxist analysis is just another male-dominated explanation of their position, which fails to take into account the real problem, which is not, as the liberals maintain, inadequate laws and corrigible rules, nor, as the Marxists maintain, bourgeois capitalism and its chief economic institution, the bourgeois family, but which is rather something much more fundamental. The problem is men. And they are a problem, first and foremost, not because of their mastery of the market place but because they oppress women sexually.
The perception that the central problem in the oppression of women is not a question of opening doors or ownership of the productive power but the social-sexual nature of men and women has established in the past thirty years a third important strand of feminism: radical feminism (originally called, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Women’s Liberation Movement). This strand rests on the assumption of a fundamental and generally antagonistic relationship between men and women over the question of gender (an issue which, like the others I have mentioned, plays an important role in de Beauvoir’s argument).
In this radical view, gender is the key issue. And gender is something imposed on women and men by male-dominated society. In comparison with socially imposed gender roles, sex-linked behaviour traits are largely irrelevant. Hence, the central issue for radical feminism is that women’s femaleness, their identity as women, is in the hands of men and is manipulated by men for their own purposes--economic, psychological, and sexual. Femininity is man’s creation of woman in his own interests. She becomes, to quote the title of Germaine Greer’s book, The Female Eunuch (published in 1970).
Radical feminism alone attaches no value whatsoever to the differentiation between the sexes, which, apart from its physical form in the sexual organs and other possible physical characteristics, it sees as something not determined biologically, but by and in the interests of men. Furthermore, it alone sees all traditional social order as founded on the domination of women by men. (Charvet 129)
And thus for radical feminists the main issue is, again to quote the title of an important recent text, Sexual Politics, and the direction for action clear: attacking traditional patriarchal notions of sex, as John Charvet’s summary of Millett’s position indicates:
The overthrow of patriarchy requires a complete sexual revolution which would destroy the traditional taboos on homosexuality, bastardy, adolescent and pre- and extra-marital sex--in other words there should be unrestricted sexual activity of all kinds. Monogamous marriage would not survive such freedom, and with it would go the patriarchal family authority, which is the basis of the patriarchal state. To replace the family, professional collective care of the young would have to be developed . . . [which] would be an improvement in child care. (123)
How is this androgynous society in which women inherit no particular gender or social role, but rather act on their free choice, to come about? To this question radical feminism has a collection of different answers, not so much a single coherent ideology as a rich mixture of different suggestions. Taking off from de Beauvoir’s observations about the important biological differences between men and women (which for de Beauvoir are insufficient to explain the oppression of women) other feminists have argued that the traditional biological understanding of men and women has been a source of the problem: our biological understanding has been the very basis for the separation of male and women into different social castes, and the family is the institution designed to perpetuate the arrangement.
To deal with the problem we must therefore, according to some radical feminists, remove the need for the family with artificial methods of reproduction and state responsibility for raising children. To others, the most obvious antidote for sexual domination by men is homosexuality. If men are the problem, then lesbianism is the answer. And some prominent radical feminists, notably the famous poetess and feminist Adrienne Rich, have not stopped short of following that concept to its logical conclusion. The basis of patriarchy is compulsory heterosexuality. The most effective way to challenge that is to turn away from it and take as the essential defining characteristic of woman her sexual activity with other women. A woman who engages in heterosexual practices is thus complicit in the patriarchy and acting immorally towards her oppressed sisters.
But this, as other radical feminists have pointed out, contradicts the basic assumption of radical feminism that there is no significant sexual differentiation and that therefore all sexual relations between people must be equally valid. To privilege one form of sexuality is to deny one’s starting assumption about human beings being sexually autonomous beings.
The radical feminist position has drawn considerable criticism from the Left for its theoretical insufficiency, in particular for the way in which it reduces all oppression of women to issues of patriarchal sex, ignoring the wider economic context and the obvious fact that not all women share the same economic life. This is, according to Morton, the question of whether Lady Astor, one of the richest women in England, oppresses or is oppressed by her garbage man. In considering this point, socialist feminists can be quite scathing in their denunciation of radical feminism:
The ethic of sisterhood . . . disguises and mystifies the internal class contradictions of the women’s movement. Specifically, sisterhood temporarily disguises the fact that all women do not have the same interests, needs, desires; working class women and middle class women, student women and professional women, anglophone and francophone women have more conflicting interests than could ever be overcome by their common experience based on sex discrimination. The illusions of sisterhood are possible because the Women’s Liberation is a middle class movement--the voices of the poor and working class women are only infrequently heard, and anglophone and francophone voices are heard separately. (Marlene Dixon, qu. Hamilton 86-7)
It is clear that the radical feminist position shares certain characteristics of the Marxist, especially their common concern with the transformation of the traditional family, but there are important differences in emphasis and a significant difference in theoretical coherence. One chief difference, indicated above, is the relative emphasis one gives to sexuality and the class struggle. Is the modern family primarily the result of the bourgeois capitalistic mode of production or the patriarchal gender relations imposed by men, something which long predates capitalism? On the basis on one’s answer to that question, different programs of action suggest themselves. For the Marxist, an analysis that starts and ends with sex-gender issues is missing the main economic point; for the radical feminist the socialist analysis that starts and ends with the class understanding of the family is missing the patriarchal point.
Both starting points yield potentially important insights; hence, the calls for some combination of both in the understanding of women’s oppression.
Both the Marxist and the [radical] feminist accounts must be used in the analysis of women in society. The first is rooted in the social relations of production and the emergence of private property; the second is rooted in the study of how biological inequalities and differences are transformed into their social meanings and institutionalised. The first requires a socialist revolution; the second, working on the precondition of developing technology, requires an overturning of that which has been considered ‘natural’ since the beginning of time and the conscious rediscovery for the individual and for the race of the experience of bisexuality. (Hamilton 91)
The radical feminist, in some forms, also stresses far more than the Marxist feminist the Nietzschean freedom for self-definition. Material conditions are of vital importance, but the crucial freedom is the freedom the person has to define her own gender identity in an androgynous society. Only if we start there, can we erode all the vestiges of patriarchal power in every corner of modern society. The way in which one might reconcile such a radically individualist view of human liberation with the demands for collective social or political action poses important problems, not least of all in de Beauvoir’s text.
Some Final Observations
In recent years we often read about how the feminist movement has become stalled. Having realized major objectives in the last hundred years, the “movement” has preoccupied itself lately (so the media reports repeatedly inform us) very largely with internecine squabbling, and it seems that some of the more important achievements may be about to be taken away (affirmative action, job equity, abortion on demand, and so on) while spokeswomen for different positions argue amongst themselves about who is to blame and about what needs to be done next. It is beyond my purpose here to offer (even if I could) any detailed analysis of this moment in the history of the movement, but a few observations suggest themselves.
In some quarters the feminist movement is perhaps a victim of its own success. The liberal push for increasing reforms into many new areas of social activity is perceived by many citizens, including many women, as a threat to other liberal values. Thus, we are witnessing a rising tide of opposition to certain affirmative action programs (which, of course, include more than women). In the same way, the laudable intentions behind a reform of speech to remove sex bias is increasingly being attacked in the name of the important non-gender liberal issue of freedom of speech. And many see certain details of sexual harrassment policies as inherently unfair limitations on important liberal freedoms.
Connected with this is the extent to which some feminists, like Camille Paglia, are insisting that certain areas of the feminist agenda have become dangerously utopian. To believe that one can create a world in which people, especially women, are free to create their own gender identity free from all oppression, Paglia insists, is to forget the most fundamental fact of human sexuality, especially heterosexuality, namely, that it is inherently dangerous. Rather than demanding the impossible revolution, she claims, feminists need to look more closely at the extent to which they should create sexual rituals which take this danger into account. Acting as if woman should have full sexual freedom to do whatever she wants may be overlooking the eternal facts of sexual conduct: “The search for freedom through sex is doomed to failure. In sex, compulsion and ancient Necessity rule. . . . The moral ambivalence of the great mother goddesses has been conveniently forgotten by those American feminists who have resurrected them. We cannot grasp nature’s bare blade without shedding our own blood” (Paglia 4, 8). For this, Paglia has been bitterly denounced by other feminists, on the ground that she is allegedly endorsing rape as an inevitable component in human sexuality and is therefore “pro rape.”
The actions of radical feminists in revolutionizing conventional attitudes to sexuality and marriage are deeply offensive to many traditional citizens including many (perhaps the majority of) women. The frequently heard observation “I am a feminist; I am not a Feminist” perhaps reflects the desire among many women to put some distance between themselves and the more radical and often more publicized spokeswomen for feminism and is a reflection of how difficult citizens in a modern liberal democracy still find any significant departures from traditional sexual practices. This reaction has led, in some quarters, to something of a de-radicalizing of the Women’s Liberation Movement and a stronger insistence that sexual liberation should include men as well as women, that bisexuality is a more fundamental condition of both sexes and that it can be equally corrupted by imposed gender roles.
There is still, too, the continuing difficulty of many women’s refusal to identify with feminism as their main political option. This is particularly the case of some of the most oppressed women in the modern state, those most in need of liberation. For example, where is a poor, black, Baptist, single mother from East Los Angeles to place her hopes for a transformed future? Should she direct her energies to the church, to the traditional political parties, to Black activists groups, to feminists, to Black feminists, or to some attempt at personal therapy or personal choice of alternatives, all of which may be competing for her attention? If she is also, say, gay and an immigrant the political complexities increase. Does she even have enough leisure time or energy to think about such things?
To such a woman, many of the leading issues of middle-class feminists can seem very remote. And it is a historical fact that, for this reason, among others, certain political objectives of mainstream feminism, like the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment, have not secured enough support among female voters to become fixed in the national legislatures. It is a common observation that while women have increasingly made use of the vote to gain certain ends and have demonstrated repeatedly how effective their collective action can be, they have not used the vote or other forms of collective political action all that effectively in the interests of women’s issues (and this fact is something often especially puzzling to men). If women’s issues are an important political fact in Nanaimo, for example, why do we not have a single female member of City Council?
These last two points add up to one of the most frequently named weaknesses of feminism, namely that it has not enlisted the enthusiastic support of women to the extent that it should have:
There have always been prominent women to argue an anti-feminist cause, and this is as true today as it was in the nineteenth century. Women, too, are always prominent in anti-feminist organizations. For much of its history feminism has appealed to a small minority of women and it is only occasionally . . . that it begins to approach a mass movement. Studies in the United States show that, when men and women are polled on issues of women’s rights, women are not very different form men in their answers. Moreover, there is evidence to support the view that the greatest change over time since 1945 has been in the opinions of men, who are now much more likely to support equal rights for women. . . . However, even on such a feminist issue as abortion, women as a whole are less likely to support it than are men. (Banks 247)
In recent years there has a been a growing insistence among many women that the most fundamental assumptions of these reform and revolutionary feminist movements may be wrong, for women are in some essential ways different from men; they are not only biologically different but their essential natures are different as well (exactly what that difference is may vary from one writer to another). The liberation of women, therefore, requires special attention to their needs as women. And these needs are different from those of men.
This insistence on a fundamental difference between the sexes as a starting point, a continuation of a tradition from before the Enlightenment, has profound implications for all areas of the women’s movement. For if one subscribes to the doctrine that women are indeed fundamentally different from men (as Rousseau insists), then full justice to women might well require different treatment--an apartheid of the sexes (as seems implied by books like Women’s Ways of Knowing). And women therefore should concentrate first and foremost on coming to understand themselves as women through those methods most appropriate to their different requirements (like consciousness raising or different educational arrangements, or special feminist therapy or through rediscovering the Great Goddess or in some similar manner) and focus on taking back certain jobs traditionally associated with the special talents of women, like midwifery.
This emphasis, which stresses individual and collective female therapy and jobs which cater exclusively to the unique nature of women as creatures different from men, obviously creates hostility among those liberal and socialist feminists for whom there is still an important social-political agenda to be realized in the midst of modern society rather than in some purely female sections of it. To divide women off from men in this way, to challenge the fundamental assumptions about the relative insignificance of biological differences, is to many feminists theoretically suspect and politically disastrous.
Nevertheless, there is a feminist position which insists that, in many vital respects, including the basis for perceiving the world and for moral reflections upon it, women’s value lies chiefly in her difference from men and that, therefore, the pursuit of, say, equal rights for women is in some important ways a male agenda which goes against women’s fundamental moral concerns with responsibilities and with caring.
Among the most pressing items on the agenda for research on adult development is the need to delineate in women’s own terms the experience of their adult life. My own work in that direction indicates that the inclusion of women’s experience brings to developmental understanding a new perspective on relationships that changes the basic constructs of interpretation. The concept of identity expands to include the experience of interconnection. The moral domain is similarly enlarged by the inclusion of responsibility and care in relationships. And the underlying epistemology correspondingly shifts from the Greek ideal of knowledge as a correspondence between mind and form to the Biblical conception of knowing as a process of human relationship. (Gilligan 173)
Connected often with the last point is a criticism of all recent feminism on the basis that it is spiritually empty, too grounded in Enlightenment rationality, and relying too heavily on the techniques of modern industrial capitalism to achieve social political goals (especially reproductive technology). The most obvious manifestations of this criticism is the often violent opposition to abortion on demand and the demands for more traditional education. But beyond that, there is a rising interest in a spiritual dimension of women’s sense of themselves, whether that comes from within Christianity or reaches back to pagan sources of inspiration in the Great Goddess or the women who run with the wolves. All of this raises the key question of how such a spiritual rebirth can be channeled into social and political action which will ease the continuing oppression of women in many traditional areas.
For all of this polemical in-fighting, the apparent contradictions in ideology and social programs of different activist groups, feminism remains the most vital and urgent ideology in modern society. Whatever impressive gains have been made and however favourably we might like to compare the situation of women in Western democracies with that of women in other cultures, it is clear that the great majority of women are still disadvantaged (to use the politest term available) relative to men and that the cause of that is still the traditional structure of the nuclear family and the expectations our society places on women to participate in such an institution.
We have inherited a rich legacy of debates from the past two hundred years, of which The Second Sex is a famous example. And we have a responsibility to inform ourselves about the issues, because the debates will continue and our success or failure to resolve the most persistent form of oppression in society will depend upon how we respond.
As John Charvet puts it: “[A] society that attaches value to the family, and at the same time acknowledges woman’s free and equal nature, raises the question of how the latter is compatible with woman’s hitherto distinctive role in the former” (140). To such a question it makes some difference whether one wants to frame an answer which preserves the family and deals with the problems through reforms like day care or increased child allowance or special arrangements at work, or an answer which seeks to abolish the family by encouraging the state to take over all responsibilities for child rearing, or an answer which sees the cure in taking compulsory heterosexuality out of our sex lives, or an answer which affirms that a stronger endorsement of the conventional roles within the family is appropriate, or an answer that seeks spiritual energy in the reclaiming of old sources of inspiration.
It would be a grave mistake to think at this stage that because we are witnessing intense and often harsh debates within feminism about methods and purposes that the issues are not vitally important or that the “movement” is not alive and well. The arguments are, for one thing, as much a sign of vitality as of anything else. Whether the issue will remain a vital concern in the next generation, as economic times get tougher and as we hear a rising call for a return to older oppressive traditions when men were men and women were glad of it is, in the last analysis, going to be up to us and to the strength of our continuing commitment to justice for all.
List of Works Cited
Charvet, John. Feminism. Toronto: J. M. Dent, 1982.
Banks, Olive. Faces of Feminism: A Study of Feminism as a Social Movement. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1981.
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Translated and edited H. M. Parshley. New York: Vintage, 1989.
Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Hamilton, Roberta. The Liberation of Women: A Study of Patriarchy and Capitalism. London: George Allen, 1978.
Keohane, Nannerl O., Michelle Z. Rosaldo, and Barbara C. Gelpi, edd. Feminist Theory: A Critique of Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York: Vintage, 1991.